Happy Thanksgiving! To keep you busy while you recover from turkey coma, we're republishing some of our favorite stories from 2013. Enjoy.--Eds
238,900 miles from Earth, I see my unborn child for the first time. My view is a grainy black-and-white image on a 10-inch screen, unremarkable and indistinguishable in every way, save for the tiniest of bubbles. It’s the great unknown. It’s my moon.
I never cared about an ultrasound before my wife’s, before that grainy black-and-white image was our crystallizing future, before the radioscopic pulse of the diagnostic sound waves transitioned seamlessly into a heartbeat. The cadence was impossibly confident for an entity so small and distant. It was the sound of life itself.
It wasn’t until hours later, staring at a snapshot in a trance, that I realized how intensely we’d been manipulated by a higher power. Because right beside the fetus were two letters that glowed like a star against the black background: GE.
My child was but a bundle of organized cells just a few weeks in development, yet he or she had already been enlisted as a soldier in the $4.6 billion ultrasound market war. My baby had been branded before birth, and I’d never look at GE’s microwaves, light bulbs, and wind turbines the same way again.
A few weeks later, I hop on the phone with Douglas Van Praet, Fast Company contributor and author of the book Unconscious Branding, which explores how advertisers use powerful psychology to pull a consumer’s strings at the limbic level. And I ask Van Praet what he thinks about corporate logos finding their way on ultrasounds beside developing children.
“It’s primal branding at its best,” Van Praet concedes as he flips through a folder of ultrasound shots I'd sent him, one after another, brand after brand, that each mark embryos with a GE, Philips, or Siemens logo. “You’ll never, ever feel a connection more deeply to anyone than your child.”
On my end, I experience a sort of Pavlovian association, he explains. In a moment of awe, GE peeks its face into the frame. And as I look at this image more, every time rekindling a moment of joyous discovery, GE can gently associate itself with positivity.
Now that's not just a bunch of Freudian philosophy about the nature of consciousness. This powerful brand association has actually been proven in labs. Researchers at University of Toronto have shown test subjects fictional brands, each associated with positive and negative imagery. By the end of the test, subjects couldn't consciously remember any of the good/bad associations, but when asked how they felt about those fictional brands, the imagery had left a strongly correlative aftertaste in their mouths--an “I like it, but I don't know why' effect” and the exact opposite.
We call this aftertaste “intuition.”
"It's certainly conceivable that you'd pick up the GE brand on the unconscious level because it’s so subtle," Van Praet explains. And in GE's case, the brand is leveraging a particularly powerful trigger--my child--whose importance sinks all the way down to the deepest parts of my brain and my basest instinct to reproduce. (It's the same reason Michelin ads feature babies sitting in tires.) It’s an all-around branding coup. But there are still rules of engagement when deploying these sly branding maneuvers.
Researcher Dr. Patrali Chatterjee, of Montclair State University, has spent her career exploring how brands work their way into our unconscious and has shown how tools like online ads that we believe we ignore can sear their way into our preferences.
When I show her a few ultrasounds, she’s intrigued.
“The positive warm glow you feel for your baby probably transfers to the [GE] logo,” she says without much hesitation--which is particularly useful in my situation, she points out, as new parents make a lot of domestic purchases (purchases that include refrigerators and dishwashers stamped with the GE logo). That halo effect can be so powerful, she continues, that someone in my situation could even pay more attention to GE commercials they see on TV.
But there are rules to the way these manipulations work, she explains. For a logo to hijack our brains and hearts through pre-attentive processing (those things we see in the corner of our eye), we require multiple exposures to the stimulus. Chatterjee has found this unconscious, positive association to occur within 23 exposures, but she believes it could probably happen in even fewer.
“When consumers process any stimulus--a logo is a brand stimulus--implicitly it only creates a weak memory trace. The weak memory trace by itself can’t really change behavior," Chatterjee explains. “But over multiple exposures, those weak memory traces start to become stronger.”
“The consumer is unaware that those memory traces exist. Let’s take John and Jane Doe looking at an ultrasound. They’re looking at a picture, they’re oohing and ahhing, showing it to their friends, talking about it, putting it in a scrapbook. They’re focusing on the baby. They may not even know it’s an ultrasound made by a GE machine, but they see it multiple times.”
“Then, maybe they’re buying a new house, and so they’re buying appliances, they go to a big-box store, they’re looking at multiple brands. It is quite conceivable they will be more attracted to the GE brands."
Now for this long con to work, the logo has to be identical everywhere I see it. That means their main logo in the corner of the ultrasound is probably quite powerful, while the tiny GE typed next to the baby--the one that got me so worked up in the first place--is a relative waste, Chatterjee would argue.
The other catch, maybe the most important catch of all when working in unconscious branding, is that the consumer can’t recognize they’re being manipulated, or very bad things happen.
"The thing about unconscious branding is that when you become cognizant that your buttons are being pushed, you’ll reject the advertisers," Van Praet says. (Indeed. You may, for instance, find yourself writing an article about it on Fast Company!)
Van Praet cites canned laughter as a perfect example of this rejection phenomenon. Canned laughter can actually make television shows seem funnier, subtly encouraging your social self to laugh out loud even if you're sitting alone on the couch. But as soon as you notice the construct, it hits you in the gut that you've been had, and within moments you'll find yourself watching the eerily silent scenes of The Big Bang Theory on YouTube.
And that's where I am now, feeling manipulated and even a bit betrayed by a piece of medical equipment that's probed my spouse to slap a brand on my baby. So I do what any future father would do in this situation: abuse my limited powers of influence, call GE's ultrasound department, and get some answers.
GE's spokespeople, of course, are so exceedingly nice that my conspiracy theory is equal parts diffused and emboldened by the time we wrap up with the pleasantries. They've connected me with Barbara Del Prince, global marketing manager for GE's Women's Health Ultrasound, who talks all things baby with such an approachable clinical proficiency that I think if she weren’t representing a $2 billion a year business and GE’s largest product in health care, she'd make a hell of a doula.
Of course, she's more than agile at answering my big question. The typed GE that sits beside the baby is actually a functional tool on the ultrasound screen, she explains. It's like a cursor for the ultrasound probe that signals its position to the doctor. And that's why it's right next to the image, so a doctor can reference the probe’s position in relation to the fetus.
But remember what Dr Chatterjee told me--that the typed GE probably doesn’t matter as much as the clearer GE logo in the corner. When I point out that the main GE logo in the corner is the largest added component on the ultrasound--larger than any piece of diagnostic information on the page--Del Prince just laughs. "Is it?" she asks, mid-chuckle. The tacit implication seems to be that GE is at least a bit guilty-as-charged for the subtle self-promotion. But that self-promotion is less for winning over parents than for winning over doctors, Del Prince insists.
"It comes in handy during trade-show presentations, because a lot of times, as other physicians are going to the experts, learning what they do, they want to see what tech they were using," Del Prince says. "This way they aren't stopping a physician every five feet."
Essentially, this branding allows doctors to sell GE ultrasound machines and other medical equipment to other doctors. That logo serves as an endorsement just like the swoosh on a Tiger Woods Nike golf ball. But what about my wife and I, and all the other couples out there, seeing a pregnancy for the first time? Wasn't there some beneficial halo effect, stemming from ultrasounds and reaching across the greater GE brand, at play?
"I definitely see the benefits of that," Del Prince finally concedes. "[But] I don't know that its actively anything we’ve sought after."
And that is the big answer we'll never know, whether there's a Jack Donaghy within GE plucking at our heart strings to truly love their international brand, or whether the GE probe cursor and the larger accompanying logo was nothing more than an impulsive decision of one of GE's 200+ ultrasound developers on staff, something that an employee could point to if a middle manager asked why Siemens had one more logo on their ultrasound than GE.
“I don’t know if GE is doing this purposefully, if this is a deliberate attempt to influence new parents," Chatterjee tells me, "but the way it looks to me, when I look at this ultrasound, is that even if they don’t intend it, even if it’s a coincidence, it can act toward driving brand preferences toward GE products.”
So ultimately, as thousands of new parents make their own voyages to the moon each day, the GE brand is stamping itself into their mushy hearts along the way. That is, so long as those new parents don’t spot the tactic ... so long as those new parents aren’t reading this article right now.